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Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (25/11/2020) 26/11/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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There’s a point a minute or so into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” when it becomes clear that it’s less of a pop song and more of a collective attempt at levitation. Each of the dozen or so members, even those who could easily get away with slouching at the back and holding down the groove, are up on the balls of their feet. Every beat is lifted up into the air, raised skywards in an attempt at take-off. Every moment ascends another step on some kind of cosmic stairway, and you can put an ironic “man” on the end of that sentence if you like, but don’t feel obliged. Sometimes it glides and soars as if it’s hit a thermal. Always, it ascends, ascends; upward, upward. Hedonism and spirituality collide. The entire thing is an act of devotion, of pure ecstatic belief.

Dance.

(No, I haven’t been getting out much. You?)

There’s a point in a perfect football match when it becomes clear that it’s less of a sporting contest and more of a collective attempt at – look, I’m going to say “transcendence” here, so brace yourself – transcendence. Or it might, if you were standing aloof from it all, if you weren’t screaming yourself hoarse, lost in the moment. Evening kickoff, difficult opponents, vital points at stake, seesawing scoreline. The way that the sound seems to become liquid, thicker and slower than the night air; the way that it seems to cascade in waves down the stands towards the pitch. The way that the game and the crowd’s reaction to it become locked in a spiralling dance, ascending, ascending. The way that the goal which has been promised for ten or fifteen or more minutes finally arrives, and the way that nothing else matters in those precious, flammable seconds.

(And very much not the way that those precious, flammable seconds are undermined by the possibility of having to stand around in the cold for five minutes while someone stares at a monitor and draws lines to decide that your centre forward’s nose was ahead of the last defender’s arse.)

Clearly, most football isn’t like that. Most football isn’t like that at all. Most football involves sitting in dampish cold while a bloke three rows behind bellows “LINO! WHERE’S HE GOING? WHERE’S HE GOING?” as the opposition left-back takes a throw in his own half. But the possibility is always there, latent, imagined. (Of course, sometimes that’s the bloody worst of it: there’s a version of hell in which our attempted, imagined comeback at the Emirates in the last half of the last game of last season stretches on into eternity, always just out of reach. Descending, descending. We get the third in about a millennium’s time, fail to get the fourth in ever more torturous ways.) But the possibility…sometimes that’s nearly enough on its own. Just the thought of burying a week’s worth of cares in celebration of a last-minute winner. What a wonderful thing it can be.

All of which is a long-winded and pretentious – cosmic stairway, for pity’s sake! – way of saying that football in front of empty stands really doesn’t float my boat. It made a certain amount of sense last season, when it was a way of finishing what’d been started, which unfortunately, in our case, turned out to be the production of a massive steaming pile of poo. But starting afresh with no identifiable end point has seemed very odd to me, and especially jarring contrasted with the boisterous atmosphere at the Pilot Field, and I must admit that I lost interest some time ago.

I’m not a “Football Without Fans…” fundamentalist. As a very, very occasional attendee nowadays, I think I forfeit the right to be too opinionated (and that’s obviously a rule which is respected by everyone right across everywhere, especially social media, so that’s excellent). I salute my co-editor for covering it all so well when there’s been nothing away from the pitch in which to dress it up. (I also salute him for letting me continue with the title of “co-editor” when I only write one piece a year, and that of a generally grumblish quality, and never actually edit anything.) And I applaud the club for making all of this seem in any way fun, when it might so easily be as enjoyable as eating raw spaghetti with a plastic teaspoon at the birthday party of someone you had a bit of an unresolved argument with a few months ago. But I haven’t seen us play since the Luton game, which was like watching a grindcore band play an acoustic set, disconcertingly pleasant. I have no idea whatsoever where Bristol City are in the table until someone tells me. I couldn’t pick Billy Troost-Ekong out of a line-up unless the rest of that line-up comprised Derek Payne, Andy Hessenthaler and Worrell Sterling. I’ll be your host tonight.

There’s an obvious gag here: this was football which deserved to be played behind closed doors. That old Shankly quip about closing the curtains if Everton were playing down the bottom of the garden. But there’s something lurking underneath that too, a sense of how football re-shapes itself when it isn’t so conscious of the public gaze. It’s hard to believe that Bristol City could be quite this cautious in front of a stadium full of their own supporters; unless the opposition is particularly illustrious, and sometimes even then, home fans tend to want to see their team do more than line up in defensive banks. They don’t touch the ball for the first two minutes, content to get their shape and sit tight. In real life, you just can’t do that without a rising restlessness in the stands.

And for us, well, there’s more than a whiff of the training ground, of football played in theory, of diagrams and flip-charts. That stuff has its place, of course, but there’s a curious lack of a nervous edge which doesn’t appear entirely healthy, and hasn’t since Nigel Pearson had us all getting in touch with our inner chi. Again, supporters generate a restlessness which tends to raise the pace of it all, and perhaps to prompt someone to do something a little more daring. Tellingly, Hornet Hive pairs the ever-excellent Jon Marks with Tommy Mooney, and you can sense his own restlessness through the wires, and you can see the glint in his eye even though he never appears on screen. Oh, for a bit of that.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, and we wouldn’t want to miss any of the excitement. We begin with an awful lot of the ball and a light simmer of attacking, Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina combining brightly on the right; the sum total of it is ‘mildly promising’ and ‘mildly promising’ is fine for now. As will become the pattern, however, City use thin fragments of possession to much greater effect, and Ngakia’s defensive weaknesses are quickly exposed by a break down his flank which ends with Semenyo shooting over when he ought to do better. There is to be much carping at the home side’s conservatism, but let’s be clear about one thing from the off: this is a game they should’ve won. They executed their gameplan with a compact intensity; we executed ours as if it was just one of several options on the table, a browsed buffet.

More football happened. I try to resist the urge to do some light pottering; my office is in desperate need of a tidy. I notice that Daniel Bentley, City’s flamboyantly-clad keeper, has a beard and try to think of other keepers with beards. It’s not a very beardy position, really, is it? Is there a reason for that, I wonder? While I’m chewing this over, the advertising hoardings flash up “BEARD” along the length of the pitch and I momentarily have a really unnerving sense of Truman syndrome.

We probably should be ahead by half-time, but we don’t do nearly enough to make that actually happen. I feel as if I’ve written that sentence before. Quina darts onto a stray cross-field throw and is denied by a saving tackle; he later flashes a shot over after a sharp turn, and comfortably wins the ‘man of the match’ award simply for doing more to make things happen than anyone else. There are moderately good things going on in various areas of the pitch: Nathaniel Chalobah is reasonably authoritative in front of the back four; Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele win their battles comfortably; James Garner is positive with the ball and supplies the half’s one moment of potentially decisive quality, drilling a pass into Andre Gray, before Ismaila Sarr’s shot is deflected over. We end the half with Cathcart only just failing to direct a header inside the post from a free kick, and a feeling that we can and must do more.

Half-time lucky hot chocolate. Distracted, I fail to stir it sufficiently; it has unpalatable powdery lumps in it as a consequence. Metaphor klaxon.

We can and must do more, and we don’t, by and large. I have yet to type João Pedro’s name and only typed those of Gray and Sarr a moment ago; the involvement of the front three is fitful at best, non-existent at worst. Of them, Gray tries more and fails more; he thoroughly fills the grid squares for well executed bad ideas, badly executed good ideas and badly executed bad ideas, leaving the fourth square untouched. I’ve no doubt that there will be those who’d like me to be more critical of that, and it’s true that he has the first touch of a mountain goat, but I’d prefer to shine the spotlight on the anonymity elsewhere: Sarr, in particular, coasts blankly through the game as if a bit bored by it all. You’re not the only one, sunshine. It isn’t a matter of expecting more from him especially; it isn’t anything to do with reputations or price tags. You need much more from those positions, whoever’s filling them. Without it, you’re effectively playing one up front, with no width.

In fact, it’s Sarr who has the half’s first threatening moment, racing onto a long ball from Ngakia, being forced slightly wide and seeing his cross-shot blocked. Part of this is about service, of course, and we really ought to have been able to supply more of those inviting balls down the side of City’s three-man defence. It’s true that we need the game to stretch in order to do that, but it does, and we don’t. The home side much more effectively exploit our weak points, with Semenyo targeting Ngakia and twice nearly creating the opening goal: the first of these, in which Ben Foster’s toe diverts a low-cross through the legs of the sliding Diedhiou in the six yard box, is perhaps the closest that the deadlock comes to being broken. Another shot slips past the far post, a header drifts onto the roof of the net.

We have one moment: Quina’s lovely, driven cross-field pass finding Sarr in space, his low cross half-cleared to the move’s originator on the penalty spot, only Bentley’s fingertips keeping out a fiercely-struck shot. It would’ve still been a poor return on possession, but it would’ve been a terrific and possibly match-winning goal nevertheless. We throw on Troy Deeney for the luckless Gray. We throw on Stipe Perica to join him for the last five minutes and have a brief holiday in the land of hitting it up to the big fellas; it wouldn’t last, but it momentarily feels as refreshing as stretching your legs after a long car journey. City force corners in injury time, Foster clawing out a sliced volley from Rowe as it threatens to loop over him. It ends. Back in the studio, everyone tries to think of something constructive to say, and largely succeeds. It’s an away point against a potential rival, after all. It looks like the club shop’s got some nice new mugs.

I’d expected to have little to say about it all, having been so detached. Oddly, though, it’s all rather familiar: Hastings United have been using more or less this formation for nearly three seasons under Chris Agutter, and I’ve watched its trials, tribulations and, ultimately, triumphs over that time. The first full season was characterised by something very similar to what we saw last night: a tendency to gather and hoard possession without making opponents uncomfortable. Good football, constructive football, but not enough penetration of the penalty area, not enough presence in the box just to take a chance and sling it in. We reached and lost in the playoffs that season, and that felt about right.

The transition from that to potential champions was made, in no small part, through the recruitment of Ben Pope, a forward who thrives in the role of target man, who can hold the ball up, bring others into play. The kind of centre forward who earns his place even without his goal tally. Suddenly, we could hit it long, build play in the final third before our opponents had a chance to set themselves. Suddenly, he could drag defenders out of position, flick something into the path of a teammate running into that space. Suddenly, it was actually worth putting a cross into the box every now and again. And I say all of that not to make Andre Gray into a scapegoat, but merely to suggest that a formation which looks something of a lost cause currently, with a number of players disappearing into its cracks, can be made to work with some perseverance. It isn’t as if there aren’t players in the squad who could play that role, if fit, although it’d probably be nice for all concerned if there were some point in the rest of Troy’s life when we weren’t relying on him to hold the ball up. But still…drag it all up the pitch a bit, get the young bucks into danger areas, hit the final third faster and more decisively enough times to make your opponents nerves fray, and suddenly, it might all look less forlorn.

It needs that. Not because we’re entitled to anything this season. Mainly because this seems like an especially bad moment for football not to be fun. It’s supposed to elevate our lives, to lift our spirits, to make us smile. Ascending, ascending. If it just echoes the worries and insecurities we have rattling around our heads during the week, putting caution before courage, putting pragmatism before idealism, then it fails us all, just a bit. And there might even be fans there to feed on it, to feed back in turn. A new beginning. A few thousand can make plenty of noise, if they give it some socially-distanced welly. Especially if you give them something to shout about.

Foster 4, Femenia 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Ngakia 2, Chalobah 3, Garner 3, *Quina 4*, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Gray 2
Subs: Deeney (for Gray, 66) 3, Troost-Ekong (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Perica (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Wilmot, Bachmann, Sierralta, Navarro, Crichlow, Phillips

Comments»

1. NickB - 26/11/2020

Absolutely wonderful. After careful thought, I’ve now moved into the dry spaghetti camp. I’m even willing to tolerate Earth, Wind and Fire. Anything but continuing to watch this supine tosh.

2. Ian Grant - 26/11/2020

I’d like to apologise for the lack of ‘thunk’ numbers in this report and any distress or confusion it might cause. Every time I tried to add them, WordPress made it all into a gigantic numbered list, and that made me cross, and I think we’ve all suffered enough this year.

3. Matt Rowson - 26/11/2020

Tempted to suggest that I could write something as brilliantly withering as this if I only had to do it once a year or so… but I kinda know that isn’t true.

On bearded goalkeepers though… Péter Disztl got all the beards. I got his autograph once. https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/peter-disztl/profil/spieler/22775

Ian Grant - 26/11/2020

Wow. Now THAT is a beard. I particularly like the way that his hair is the same width/height all the way around his head, like he’s poking his face through a woolly steering wheel cover.

Matt Rowson - 26/11/2020

The Hungarian World Cup team in 1986 was a bit rubbish, but won on beards. https://www.pinterest.de/pin/149041068901318449/

4. Westerleigh Junction - 26/11/2020

Interested by your mention on Ben Pope – he was (at best) mediocre playing for Lewes in the Isthmian Premier a couple of years ago, maybe it’s just that Isthmian South East is his level?

Ian Grant - 26/11/2020

Could be. He’s been really consistently excellent for Hastings, though, and he contributes a huge amount even on an off-day. Hopefully we’ll get promoted this time around and have a chance to find out!

5. Will - 26/11/2020

Great report Ian. I haven’t seen any games yet this season, but from what I’ve read Sarr worries me. I don’t think he wants to be there (echoes of Richarlison and Doucoure?), and to some extent you can’t blame him when he knows that premier league clubs wanted to buy him. I fear that if we don’t get promoted (and I’m not overly hopeful on that front), we will end up having to sell him for a lot less than the figures being talked about at the start of this season. Regardless, no matter how good he is (and I think if Liverpool were genuinely interested then they may have done far better by getting Jota instead), I’m a firm believer in only having players who want to play for the club on the pitch. Hope I’m wrong and he does want to be there, as he should be more than good enough to create and score a hatful at this level. I guess time will tell.

6. Deezzaa - 26/11/2020

Hornet Heaven paints an idyllic paradise for Watford supporters. I fear, however, and extending your metaphor, it is more likely to be the descent into one of the circles of hell where our ability to experience a seat-grippingly exciting game is oh so close but tantalisingly just out of reach for eternity.

7. Sequel - 26/11/2020

Unpalatable powdery lumps. Harsh, but fair. And damned funny.

8. Ray Knight - 27/11/2020

It is cheaper and less stressful listening on the radio. Also much calmer post-match despite the lack of chances created. Next 5 games are all winnable on paper. We now need to kick on, play with more confidence and cohesion. Keep reading we have the best squad in this division but yet to be convinced. Andre Gray would definitely not make it into any of our rivals squads for instance. As the great Kenneth William’s said ‘Stop mucking about’!

9. James Bradburn - 27/11/2020

Thanks Matt and Ian for a bit of humour during these weird times.

10. Andy C - 28/11/2020

Wonderful stuff Mr Grant. I must follow The Hastings results more closely ( just up the road from me). I must admit I took ages to read the report because I kept scrolling up and down to check which thunk I was on. Some habits never die. Most definitely an age thing.

David Wray - 29/11/2020

Definitely an age thing Andy. Can use your free bus next year to nip along to Hastings if we’re not at the Vic.
I missed the thunks as well but great report.


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